McALESTER — Finding that a “compelling” interest exists, a Pittsburg County judge ordered the state to turn over an investigative report which allegedly recommends a shutdown of the Narconon drug rehabilitation center following three patient deaths.
“The vast majority of records I reviewed are relevant, and there is a compelling private and, to a certain degree, public interest” in their release, Associate District Judge James Bland said Tuesday during a hearing in his courtroom.
However Bland’s order requires that the report be provided only to attorneys for plaintiffs who are suing Narconon and to the rehab center, not to the public. The state Mental Health Department has objected to public release of the report, pointing to a state law that requires a court order for release of its investigative reports.
That law appears to allow judges to order public release of the agency’s investigative reports if they find that release “is necessary for the protection of a legitimate public or private interest.”
A multiagency investigation of Narconon Arrowhead began after Stacy Dawn Murphy, 20, of Owasso died from a drug overdose at the facility in July 2012. Her death followed the deaths of patients Gabriel Graves of Claremore in 2011 and Hillary Holten of Carrollton, Texas, in 2012.
Shirley Gilliam, Graves’ mother, said she was pleased with Bland’s ruling. She said she hopes the report can eventually be released to the public, after the names of unrelated patients are redacted to protect their privacy.
“People have a right to know what is going on at that place,” said Gilliam, who attended the hearing Tuesday and sat with Robert Murphy, Stacy Murphy’s father.
Narconon Arrowhead is located on the shores of Lake Eufaula near Canadian, northeast of McAlester. The facility can house up to 200 patients, known in the program as students.
Gilliam, wiping away tears, said she intends to continue fighting to uncover the truth about problems at Narconon.
“I’m doing this for my son. It’s all I can do for him now,” she said.
Robert Murphy said Bland’s order that the report be made available as evidence in the lawsuits “will work toward protecting the public, as the Department of Mental Health should be doing.”
Attorney Gary Richardson represents relatives of the three patients who died and other plaintiffs in lawsuits against Narconon Arrowhead. He sought records from the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services related to an investigation by a former inspector general for the agency, Kim Poff, and an investigator, Michael DeLong.
Poff and DeLong have sued the department in Oklahoma County District Court, alleging that its leaders, including Commissioner Terri White, withheld their final report recommending that Narconon Arrowhead be shut down after the patient deaths.
Their lawsuit claims that the agency “buried the report, recommendations and findings of Ms. Poff and Mr. DeLong because the Department did not want to get involved with litigation involving the Church of Scientology.”
It notes that Narconon Arrowhead has “significant financial backing” from the Church of Scientology.
The facility is the flagship branch of an international drug-rehabilitation organization rooted in the teachings of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. The program’s unorthodox treatment includes five-hour daily sauna sessions and large doses of niacin — vitamin B3. Additionally, patients go through training based on Hubbard’s teachings.
Narconon claims that it operates 100 drug rehabilitation and treatment centers in 30 countries and that its Oklahoma facility is the largest.
Michael St. Amand, a board member of Narconon of Oklahoma, has said the dispute over the report involves privacy concerns.
“Narconon’s interest is and has been to protect the privacy rights of its students and other nonparties,” he said. “The judge made it clear that he shared this concern when he ordered their names deleted and severely restricted the dissemination of whatever records the Department of Mental Health ultimately produces to the lawyers involved in the case.”
At least 11 lawsuits have been filed in Pittsburg County alleging wrongful deaths of Narconon patients, negligence, fraud and other claims against the rehab facility. In court filings, Narconon has denied the allegations.
Before Tuesday’s hearing, Narconon’s attorneys argued that Bland should close the courtroom to the public. Bland denied that motion, saying the hearing would not involve discussion of patients or other private issues.
Attorneys also sparred over whether Richardson can take Poff’s deposition.
“It’s clear that she (Poff) has some agenda,” said an attorney for Narconon. “There’s no telling what she’s going to answer, and you can’t unring a bell.”
“Well, you can contain that ring,” Bland responded. “I’m not going to rule that she can’t be deposed.”
Narconon’s attorney, James Secrest, asked for a 10-day delay before the Department of Mental Health surrenders the report, in case the defendants want to appeal. The lawsuits name a variety of entities related to Narconon, as well as Gerald Wootan, a physician who is alleged to have failed to provide oversight at the center.
Claims in the civil suits include that staff members were trading drugs for sex with patients and that the facility failed to provide medical treatment, leading to patient deaths.
The Mental Health Department refused to provide a copy of the Narconon Arrowhead investigative report following a request by the Tulsa World. A spokesman has said the agency turned over its findings related to the Narconon investigation to state Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s office.
Pruitt’s office has taken no action related to the patient deaths or other alleged problems at Narconon. A Pruitt spokesman refused to say whether the Attorney General’s Office is investigating.
The state Insurance Department has confirmed that one of its officials testified before a state grand jury investigating allegations of insurance fraud at Narconon.
Following the deaths at Arrowhead, state lawmakers passed legislation touted as giving the state more authority to regulate the facility. After the law changed, Narconon Arrowhead sought certification as a residential substance abuse treatment center but withdrew its application before Department of Mental Health site visits.
The facility has now applied for certification as a substance abuse halfway house., defined by state law as one that provides “low intensity substance abuse treatment in a supportive living environment to facilitate the individual’s reintegration into the community.”